How can human flesh become one with ancient stone?
This seems a challenging riddle. But we experienced it last evening, in a concert presented at Notre Dame Cathedral by the choral school of Notre Dame. Called the “Maitrise,” this full time training program for singers of all ages, started in the Middle Ages, as the cathedral was being built. It has been funded again, specifically, by the French government since 1991, and since its re-establishment then has, to date, graduated approximately 60 professional singers who have become members of important choruses all over Europe. In the tradition of the awesome Boys’ Choirs, young choral singers start their training while still school children. By the time they graduate as adults, their voices, already chosen from the very best, are trained and developed as perfect musical instruments. The sound is unbelievably pure and liquid, and they can shape the tones so they float and soar like swallows playing.
They presented a program last night that was diverse, and yet uniformly ethereal. It started with a Renaissance era sacred piece that the Vatican had held secret, for performance only there, for centuries. This piece, the “Miserere,” by Gregorio Allegri, has – understandably – rarely been heard. It eerily combined Gregorian chant and polyphonic harmonies – blending to perfection the old and the new of its time. Sung in Notre Dame, with the unbelievably pure, rounded, fluid, soaring tones of the Notre Dame choir, it was heavenly. The stately Gregorian movement of the individual tones harmonized perfectly with the rhythmic purity of Gothic arches and the profusion of stained class colors. The music and the cathedral became one. We were transported to Heaven, listening to the angel choir sing God’s perfection.
The concert — all of it a capella — proceeded through other pieces, mostly of the 19th and 20th century, and ended with the strange experience of well know Negro Spirituals set into refined classical rhythms and harmonies. Each selection was beautiful in its own right. But we felt incredibly blessed to have heard the Allegri piece in such a perfectly suited concert venue – to have had our moment in the presence of the Divine in art. I only regret that it’s impossible to share it with anyone who wasn’t there – there was no way to preserve its perfect blend of music and place, except in the distinctly porous confines of our very human memories.
It was still light as we left Notre Dame, at 10:15 pm, and walked slowly across the Ile de la Cite, enjoying the lingering sense of transport in the beauty of Paris at sunset. We stopped at a sidewalk café – that other awesome delight of Parisian life — and finished a perfect evening with loving conversation and companionship over the café’s housemade ice cream and a cup of espresso coffee. In its finest moments, Paris can provide moments of supremely enjoyable sensory pleasures.